Michael Harper’s family has been farming in Cheneyville, a town of about 600, since right after the Civil War.
He’s a sixth-generation grower at the northern tip of Louisiana’s sugar country, farming today with his father, uncle and cousin-in-law. In the 153 years since his first relative planted a crop in the muddy soil about 2 hours northwest of Baton Rouge, a lot has changed.
And not just for his family’s farm, which moved into sugarcane in the late 1980s, but also the community.
As commodity prices dropped on other crops, many of his neighbors also turned to cane.
Today, sugarcane is worth $3.5 billion to the state’s economy and employs about 16,500 people at hundreds of farms, 11 raw sugar factories and two refineries.
But the impact is more than just farm and manufacturing jobs.
Harper, and others in the state, say sugarcane has become a way of life that spreads to local businesses helping rural towns survive. Without it, he says, communities all across south Louisiana would die.
“Everything that we’ve worked so hard to build, and the hard lessons that we’ve learned, I just couldn’t imagine another way of life without this,” he says.
Harper’s story is one of four the American Sugar Alliance documented in Louisiana as part of a new series meant to show lawmakers what’s at stake as they debate the future of sugar policy.
His message to Congress rings true across the state.
“As hard as [farming] is, as risky as it is, I enjoy that challenge,” he says. “And one way or another, we find a way to pull it off every single year. Through the hardest of circumstances, we find a way to get it done. We are survivors. But without a sugar policy, we will not survive.”
America has had a sugar policy in some form since the country was founded. And Louisiana was the first place where the crop was planted – tracing its roots back more than 200 years.
In that time it’s touched a lot of Louisianans, like Charles Guidry, who farms with his wife and other family members near the community of Erath. Guidry, who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate, came back to the family farmer after a teaching career.
“It created a whole lot of jobs,” he said. “And that’s a big plus to the community in our area. You contribute to the economy and that’s very important.”
Gert Hawkins, who grows sugarcane with her brother and niece in a small town named Bachelor, knows the pride of running a business.
“It is a way of life,” she says. “We run a good business. We run a good efficient business but mainly we are a family farm. We are a family business and it means a lot to us to be together.”
The importance of family and friends across Louisiana’s Sugar Belt spreads through the industry like the roots of the sugarcane that grows here.
Louisiana is a challenging place. Rain can turn fields into a swamp that mires tractors axel-deep in mud. Cold weather, with occasional snow and freezing temperatures, is a threat every winter. Long distances to mills, for some farmers, mean extra cost in transporting crops.
But the community pulls together.
“We’re a very close-knit group. We are very attached. We help each other. It’s an awesome industry,” Hawkins says.
Families are built around farming and sugarcane in Louisiana. Ties to the land run deep.
Makelle Pinsonat, in West Baton Rouge Parish, grew up on a tractor. Her children, now teenagers, rode along in car seats in the cabs of tractors as the family worked the fields.
She’d have it no other way.
“What is there not to love about growing up on a farm?” she asks. “Being able to raise my own children on the farm. They are with us. They are right at our side every step of the way.”
She farms with her husband, brother, his wife and her parents and uncle.
Like others here, Pinsonat is hoping that Congress will not cut her family out of the next Farm Bill.
The current sugar policy is designed to operate without taxpayer cost, and it gives U.S. producers a chance to survive the rising tide of foreign subsidies and trade abuses.
Pinsonat felt it when Mexico illegally dumped highly subsidized sugar on the U.S. market a few years ago.
“When we went through the issue with Mexico dumping our prices dropped tremendously,” she said. “But our inputs are steady going up and we are still farming on old sugar prices…We sacrifice. We make sacrifices to make it work because this is what we love.”